Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Giant Walls = Giants?

Ron Hendel has proposed a theory to reconcile the biblical Conquest account with the archaeological record in the august publication Biblical Archaeology Review. The bottom line is that biblical reflections of the "giants in Canaan" idea come from the awed reaction that the huge walls of the Canaanite city-states would have evoked.
Against the backdrop of these scattered memories of the original giant inhabitants of Canaan, we can fill in the background to the story of Jericho. The walls that survived into the Israelite period were huge, and so their inhabitants would seem to have been giants. We now know that these cyclopean walls were built during the Middle Bronze Age (2000–1550 B.C.E.), which is precisely when Jericho was last occupied before the Israelite period.3 The Israelites saw these ruined walls (which had been destroyed hundreds of years earlier) and knew that giants must have lived there.
The Israelites remembered—as Amos recalls—that Yahweh destroyed these giants before them. According to the story of Jericho, the walls fell in a great miracle. Perhaps it didn’t happen exactly how or when the Biblical writer said, but the Israelites believed that Yahweh, the Israelite God, destroyed the city without Joshua and the army having to shoot a single arrow. According to the story that was passed down, after the walls fell, the Israelites “utterly destroyed all that was inthe city by sword—man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and ass” (Joshua 6:21).
The story fails to mention that the men and women, young and old, were thought to be giants. But if we are warranted in supplying this missing piece of Israelite memory based on the other Biblical stories of giants in Canaan, then we have a clear link between the Bible and the archaeological evidence of the massive walls of Jericho. They were the same ruined walls that we can still see today, and they are still
breathtakingly huge. It is easy to see why the Israelites would have thought—as Wright observed—that they were built by giants. And when the walls came tumbling down—well, that must have been a great story. (from p. 2)
Interesting idea. It has a certain ring of plausibility to it coupled with the sheer ridiculousness of suggesting that a people who escaped from a land full of monumental architecture (and perhaps built some of it) would have been over-awed by some extra-thick city walls. Of course, anyone who's seen Josh and the Big Wall would know just how high and tall those walls were.

Read the whole story for yourself. And don't forget to soak in the wisdom from BAR's readers in the "Talkback" section.


  1. Of course your critique presupposes a historical exodus which is hardly a consensus view ... then again, if someone is willing to disavow the exodus, then the appearance of "giants" need not be historically explained either ...

  2. that's true, Jay, but if one wants to have it both ways like Hendel (even in a modified form), then it's a valid question to ask.

    I'm not even sure what a consensus view on the Exodus would look like. The options are 1) it happened because the Bible tells me so, 2) it might have happened because the Bible tells me so, and 3) it didn't happen because there's noting besides the Bible telling me it did.

  3. Not necessarily. Some who reject a historical exodus as depicted in the Bible would still try to postulate some basis for an "exodus story" to explain its existence within Israel's religious tradition/social memory, especially given the importance of its connection with Israelite ethnic identity. In this sense, then, Hendel is following his own MO set forth in his previous stuff ...
    While your question would indeed be valid if this were a "both ways" proposition, a "historical exodus" need not be as the Bible depicts it (Egypt, slavery, etc.). This is the point I was trying to make: that your main critique demanded these elements.
    For the record, I don't necessarily buy Hendel's thesis in this article ...

  4. well, at the risk of being run out of town on a rail... I'll be beleive the Bible.

    interesting theory though on the giants of Canaan. it could be true - lots of figurative stuff in the Bible so it is interesting to think about.

  5. Jay,

    I was including the positions you describe in my "it might have happened" category. My own position is somewhat similar. Something happened, but it's probably not exactly how the Bible described. But it seemed to me that Hendel was accepting something of the historical - they came from Egypt - part. Of course, he didn't really talk about how the Israelites got there on the border of Canaan.

    You're right, though, that my original critique assumed the biblical parts of the story. My main critique is that Hendel's hypothesis seemed a bit of a stretch all around.

    sorry for the delay in comment approval. I'm in st paul at upper midwest sbl.

    brian, thanks for your comment.